Dark days of apartheid make unwelcome return to South Africa

Spate of attacks has stoked concerns about growth of white racism

Archbishop  Desmond Tutu: said recently it felt like the dark days of apartheid had returned. Photograph: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: said recently it felt like the dark days of apartheid had returned. Photograph: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

 

A growing number of overt public displays of racism have prompted a bout of national introspection in South Africa around the level of progress made in achieving a non-racist society since apartheid ended.

Highlighted in different media and by political parties, the racially motivated incidents over the past year led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to say that he felt like the dark days of apartheid had returned.

“In recent weeks, in Cape Town, we have heard about white men beating up black domestic workers and urinating from a balcony on to black passersby. It’s as if we’re in a time warp and have returned to the past,” he said on the 30th anniversary of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, which is viewed as a “white” party by many black South Africans despite its multiracial make-up, felt so disturbed by recent incidents that it issued a statement detailing and condemning the acts that had come to light.

One reported incident involved a gang of bikers who attacked a black petrol pump attendant in Witbank in Mpumalanga in early December after he asked them to move to a different fuel pump.

Another told how in March two black women left a bar in Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal to fetch a friend. When they returned, they were blocked from entering by a group of white men who told them it was “not a bar for blacks”. When they protested all three were assaulted by the men.

Right-wing leaders

DA leader Hellen Zille blamed the “sudden surge of racist incidents” on complacency by white South Africans who were not racist. She also held responsible the emergence of new “right-wing leaders” in the form of Afrikaans pop singer Steve Hofmeyr and literary critic Dan Roodt who have replaced the paramilitary types of old, such as Eugene Terre’Blanche of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement.

Hofmeyr, a popular figure who has repeatedly stirred up racial tensions with his utterances, tweeted in October: “Sorry to offend but in my books blacks were the architects of Apartheid. Go figure.”

The tweet hit the headlines when satirical puppet Chester Missing waged a social media campaign against Hofmeyr, asking his sponsors why they supported a racist. The confrontation ended up in court when Hofmeyr sought a protection order against the puppet master Conrad Kock.

The case was dismissed, with the magistrate saying Hofmeyr was, in effect, “seeking an order to advance views that lend themselves to racism and advance the imposition of the apartheid regime”.

Survey

A recent survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation suggests the DA’s concerns on racism are well-placed, as it reveals that a large section of white society is unprepared to accept the oppressive and criminal nature of apartheid.

Only 53 per cent of white South Africans agreed that apartheid was a crime against humanity, versus about 80 per cent of black, 77 per cent of Indians and 70 per cent of coloured South Africans.

Findings in the annual Barometer report, which used a representative sample of South Africa’s races, also show that whites were half as likely as blacks to agree with fixing the injustices of the past.

Writing in BusinessDay newspaper after the report’s release author Kim Wale said that annual results over time indicated South Africans were becoming disillusioned with the idea of a united South African identity.

“This is a challenge for reconciliation and requires a committed effort to creating an inclusive identity,” he said.

So why are some members of the white population struggling to feel part of society and expressing their dissatisfaction through racial attacks?

Many disgruntled whites believe they are second class citizens in South Africa because of their government’s implementation of a range of black economic empowerment polices. The state maintains the policies are designed to uplift black people disadvantaged by apartheid, but many whites say they only serve to exclude them from participating in economic activities and enrich the new black elite.

In addition, the high levels of violent crime in areas where it did not regularly occur during apartheid is creating a sense of insecurity among whites. Attacks against white farmers have led some Afrikaners to believe a genocide is being perpetrated against them.

In November the Afrikaner party, Freedom Front Plus, made a presentation to the UN outlining its case in this regard and asking the organisation to investigate its claims.

The police stopped compiling farm murder statistics in their own category in 2009, but the Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa (TAU) revealed in September that since 1990, 1,734 murders had occurred on farms out of 3,341 attacks. Most murder victims were the farm owners or their partners, according to the TAU, which says farmers are far more likely to be killed than ordinary citizens.

Unemployment

South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) spokesperson Mienke Mari Steytler told The Irish Times that while the increase in race-based attacks was shocking, statistics compiled by the organisation run contrary to the views held by many in the white communities in relation to unemployment.

While many of these people feel excluded economically, the institute’s figures show that the ratio of unemployment for whites is fewer than one in 10, while for blacks it is seven in 10.

In terms of attacks on white farmers Steytler said: “Even though farmers are more vulnerable, we still hold that the attacks are not racially motivated but are rather a consequence of general lawlessness and impunity in South Africa.”

She concluded that while white insecurities likely played a role in the recentrace-based attacks, the SAIRR believed “the root cause of all instability in South Africa – both politically and economically – is due to weak policies in education, the labour market and empowerment,” rather than a significant inter-race problem.

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